But for the majority of people, it is a lifelong journey. This fact was the basis for the psychosocial theory of identity development proposed by Erik Erikson, a famous psychologist. Erikson identified eight stages of life. At each stage, a life crisis forces persons to wrestle with issues that are relevant or important to them. During such times of crisis, people may try on various roles and explore competing beliefs and ideologies. In this way one answers the question, "Who am I?" One's spiritual beliefs form a central part of their personal identity.
Crises also stimulate developmental growth by shaping the formation of cognitive schemas. Cognitive schemas are like mental scaffolding or mental templates that influence how information is perceived, processed, interpreted, evaluated, organized, stored, and retrieved. Religious beliefs (a specific type of schema) actively filter which data are stored, which are discarded, and how they are subsequently understood and interpreted. For example, a common childhood cognitive schema is that bad things happen to bad people, not to good people. Thus, if something bad happens to a person, that person deserved it because he or she was not a good person. But what happens if something tragic happens to a person that they know is good and kind ("when bad things happen to good people")? In such a case, incoming data do not agree with an existing belief (schema) and the potential for a crisis is in the making. The result is cognitive dissonance-the tension that we experience when competing beliefs do not agree with one another. The person experiencing cognitive dissonance has two choices: either work the incoming data into existing beliefs or attempt to reconstruct the belief in order to accept the new data. Psychologists refer to these processes as assimilation (working the data into existing beliefs) and accommodation (reconstructing the belief in order to make sense of the new data). The more dramatic rates of spiritual development occur when accommodation occurs and existing beliefs are reconstructed.
Whether or not a person embraces and engages a life crisis (accommodates competing data by reconstructing an existing schema) depends on a number of factors. For example, environments that are perceived of as physically and emotionally safe (i.e., honest and genuine expressions of doubt and struggle are supported and encouraged as one wrestles with hard questions) foster this kind of growth. Opportunities for role taking (i.e., walking in another person's shoes via service learning, volunteer work, or reading great works of literature) stimulate growth and development. Having responsibility for others and for solving relevant moral dilemmas are powerful stimulants to growth and development. Culturally diverse environments provide opportunities to interact with persons holding differing viewpoints and values. And they provide challenges to one's own thinking. The availability of role models and the attitudes of one's peers and friends influence whether one will have the courage to honestly engage a crisis.
Crises are, by their very nature, difficult to experience. But the resulting benefits can be profound.
Persons who work through a crisis emerge with an "owned" identity, rather than with a sense of self that has been "borrowed" from family and friends. They have a greater understanding of who they are, what they value, what they believe, and why they believe it. And they gain a greater appreciation for, and comfort with, the complexities and paradoxes of modern life. If and how one develops spiritually as the result of a crisis depends on the nature of the particular crisis, the individual (e.g., his or her history, temperament, and so on), and the context and conditions in which the crisis occurred and in which the individual responds to and recovers from the crisis.